Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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 Chapter 8

An Outing in the Country

A Village on the Marne, June 28, 1936

The expedition by motorboat up the Seine, and then the Marne, had been organized by Marie-Claude Serrault. The object was partly to get away from Paris for a diversion, but it was also in response to an earlier outing, in America, up the Ohio River. This time, there were only three of them, Marie-Claude herself, Erich, and Charlotte. The motorboat was a hired one, far short of the Seydlitz craft in opulence, but there was at least one compensation. The restaurant where they were to dine was famed throughout France for its sauces.

En route, they pulled over to the bank and entered a village which, apart from a few automobiles, had hardly changed in a hundred years. Seated in the principal cafe with a bottle of passable wine in front of them, the conversation turned to Therese Coulaincourt. Marie-Claude was complaining,

"She's acting dreadfully. She's formed a liaison with Leon Blum, and she already had Paul Giroud in her handbag."

It was possible to tell by the speaker's expression and tone that she felt dislike mixed with fear in the case of Blum, and dislike mixed with something else in the other case. Charlotte replied,

"Then Erich has quite a lot of competition doesn't he? A prime minister and a rising young political star."

Erich showed little concern.

"I imagine that M. Blum, who I understand looks like a frog,..."

Marie-Claude interrupted,

"Even worse! A species of Jewish toad with huge warts. How she can touch him..."

"I hadn't realized toads were so much worse than frogs. In any case, the girl does have a craving for power. M. Blum, whatever his disfigurements, can satisfy her there. M. Giroud, I understand, converses well."

Charlotte broke in,

"Before you tell us in lurid detail all the things you do for Therese so much better than the others, let me point out that your neck scarf isn't tied in the proper French way."

That stopped Erich dead. It took both ladies, consulting with one another, to get his silk scarf arranged in such a way as to convey both a modicum of dash and a measure of restrained elegance. Marie-Claude accompanied her ministrations with a running commentary on the unfortunate political tendencies of his mistress. Finally, putting the last touch to his neckwear, she concluded,

"Therese used to be all right. She supported the Doumerge government, and even made apologies for Stavisky. But something has happened to her recently."

Charlotte rejoined,

"Perhaps she's been affected by Giroud and Blum."

"Not her. If there's any influence, it'll be her influence on them."

Erich said,

"I can see that I'll have to speak to Therese about her politics."

Charlotte laughed derisively, remarking,

"Don't try to get between French women and their politics, my child. It can be dangerous."

Marie-Claude reached down to pick up a napkin she had dropped, and, happening to catch Erich looking down the front of her dress, protested spiritedly. Grimacing prettily, she then straightened and arranged the front of her dress with so much care as to suggest that she expected him to continue his attempts to visually penetrate her costume.

It was then that Charlotte asked the location of the ladies' room. It turned out that there was only one in the village, and Marie-Claude attempted to restrain her as she started to move in the direction indicated by the waitress.

One of few things Charlotte didn't know about France was the state of rural restrooms. Marie-Claude explained in whispers. Instead of a toilet, there would be a seat with a hole in it up on a pedestal. When the chain was pulled, water would rush from the side of the large room, and, in theory, flush whatever had dropped on the floor off to the side. It would there travel, in a little channel, to the river. In fact, the whole floor would be covered with excrement with bits of toilet paper stuck to it. There would also be an impressive number of flies in attendance. Marie-Claude, in whispers that Erich only half caught, went on to explain that the seat could be reached only by tiptoeing across a row of bricks, the tops of which were, again in theory, above the surrounding Slough of Despond. Charlotte, insisting that it couldn't be as bad as that, left the cafe.

Erich took that opportunity to converse in a way which, while not offensive, or even pushy, was rather personal in its implications. The upshot was that, if Marie-Claude and Charlotte desired him to give up a politically incorrect mistress, it would help a great deal if a replacement could be found whose views were more appropriately conservative. It would, he made so bold as to suggest, be extremely difficult to find a woman whose views had more to recommend them than Marie-Claude's own. Marie-Claude, obviously pleased, pointed out that no woman has quite so much allure for a man as the one he cannot quite have.

"Therefore, a woman in that position can use a man's attraction for her in the service of improving his politics. Is that not true?"

Before he could reply, she added,

"You know, Charlotte may underestimate you. You might, after all, be able to influence Therese."

Erich actually looked surprised as Marie-Claude went on to explain.

"Therese is really a loose cannon. She can get hold of a politician and turn him upside down before he knows what's happened. Considering her looks, it's really amazing. But true. She's much more dangerous than most male politicians. If you could do something, even a little, we'd all be extremely grateful. You're very unusual, and I'm sure she doesn't regard you lightly."

Erich, seemingly a little uncomfortable, asked what could have happened to Charlotte. Marie-Claude replied,

"She probably had trouble finding the rest room. It may be some distance. I'm sure she won't use it when she does find it."

As if on cue, Charlotte entered, a little embarrassed and somewhat amused, and made an expressive gesture. Marie-Claude whispered that it would be possible later to find a quiet spot in the woods. Erich, catching this, announced proudly that he, also having a natural need, was determined to triumph over even the most primitive facilities.

It wasn't long after Erich's departure that a rather terrifying roar broke out in the street. It sounded as if the Luftwaffe was attacking in force. The reality of at least two dozen motorcycles advancing fast in such a way as to take over the entire street was only slightly less alarming, particularly when they skidded to a stop in front of the cafe.

The leader was a tall man whose outfit was an unintended parody of that of a fighter pilot in the Great War. In a tight black costume with black boots, he had a leather flying helmet, goggles, and, of course, a white silk scarf. The scarf, reflecting the fact that he travelled at a lower and dustier altitude, was actually brownish gray. He nevertheless draped it carefully over the handlebars. He then removed his helmet with a weary gesture, as if he had been shooting down enemy aircraft all morning. Finally, he took from a box on the back of his machine a high peaked cap reminiscent of the Luftwaffe. The only difference was that, where the swastika would have been, there was a bright red cross.

The same small cross appeared, rather tastefully, on his left breast, and, less elegantly, on bits and pieces of the other motorcyclists. Some of the crosses took the form of tattoos. One man had the words "Croix de Feu" tattoed on his exposed chest, and, below them, an injunction to perform a perverse sexual act on oneself.

The politics of the Cross of Fire weren't very different from those of the Young Patriots or the other Rightist Leagues, but their style was more thrusting. Moreover, since they ranged over the countryside on their motorcycles, they could make a surprise appearance almost anywhere. Even though they were now in the process of transforming themselves into a political party, it was still not uncommon for them to roar into a village or town, beat up the police, humiliate the prominent citizens, and then embark on an extended drinking bout.

On this occasion, the leader strode purposefully toward the cafe with his ragtag company behind him. His physiognomy was not reassuring. Lantern jawed and hollow eyed, he was sufficiently unshaven to look rough, but sufficiently pulled together to look mean. He might be a fake fighter pilot, but just the sort of fake who would delight in torturing those weaker than himself. Marie-Claude whispered quickly to Charlotte,

"No need to worry. They're a Cross of Fire detachment. We'll be on the list of contributors Colonel de la Roque makes them carry."

"I certainly hope so."

"We shouldn't have to say anything at all. They're instructed not to bother people like us."

The leader of the motorcyclists now came into the middle of the room and stopped. When no one took any overt notice of him, he kicked over a nearby table with his boot. Having thus called for service, he sat down, pushed his cap back, and gestured imperiously to the frightened young waitress. The other motorcyclists then filled up the other tables, the overflow leaning against the walls.

Despite the inauspicious beginning, it looked as if there might not be any trouble. The visitors were genuinely thirsty, and an older woman appeared to help the waitress bring out beer. Most of the cyclists seemed to be paying for their drinks, and it was possible that they had only stopped to refresh themselves en route to some pressing engagement.

Unfortunately, one of the less disciplined visitors began pawing the young waitress. When she resisted, another yanked her skirt to the floor and planted his boot on it. She gave only a little, rather muffled, scream, and stood motionless in her underpants.

There was then a second's pause when all looked to the leader for a signal. Marie-Claude beckoned quickly to him. He approached with an odd expression, both quizzical and resigned. Marie-Claude spoke quietly, mentioning the name of Colonel de la Roque.

The leader looked as if he wanted to make a gallant speech, but didn't quite know how. He instead bowed wordlessly and made a gesture to his followers. He then walked casually out of the cafe. The others, obviously disappointed, drifted after him. There were hostile looks at Marie-Claude and Charlotte, but not a word. One man made a half-hearted swipe at the bare white legs of the waitress, who was in the act of retrieving her skirt. The last cyclist out kicked over another table, scattering broken glass, sugar, and bits of china over the floor.

Amid the roar of starting engines, Charlotte congratulated Marie-Claude while the waitress came over to thank her. The girl did not, of course, understand how it was that Marie-Claude had been able to spare her further trouble.

It was some fifteen minutes later, when the two women were about to go in search of Erich, that the older waitress approached them in great confusion. The story she told was somewhat disjointed, but, Charlotte and Marie-Claude soon worked out what had happened.

After the Cross of Fire left the cafe, it encountered Erich at the other end of the street. The leader, probably not knowing quite what to make of a young man such as he, stopped to talk. Erich got off to a bad start by comparing their machines to the American Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles. The French cyclists hadn't wanted to talk about the fine points of motorcycle engineering. Nor did they like Americans. Erich then took them to be some sort of lower- class group on holiday, and proclaimed his communist sympathies.

After a short silence, the leader asked Erich where he was going. If he had mentioned the ladies at the cafe, it might still have been all right. Instead, he replied lamely that he was looking for the toilet. The leader laughed unpleasantly before replying,

"Very well, my little communist, we'll help you find it."

Erich politely declined this assistance, but the leader insisted rather elaborately on being allowed to be of service. Erich, then being marched along by dismounted motorcyclists, objected that they must be in a hurry to get where they were going. The leader replied that they were extremely anxious to show visiting Americans proper hospitality, and that their time was entirely at his disposal.

What happened then was reported by a townsman who, powerless to intervene, watched through a suspiciously round knot-hole in the fence on one side of the privy. Erich, on entering the toilet area with a cyclist on each arm, was kicked in the rear and sent sprawling into the filth. Then, under the direction of the leader, the others, who seemed not to mind getting their boots dirty, kicked and rolled Erich back and forth across the floor. Finally, four or five of them urinated on him before leaving.

By the time the news came to Marie-Claude and Charlotte, two helpful villagers had conducted Erich to the nearby river. It was reported that he wasn't badly hurt, but appeared to be in a state of shock. Charlotte listened fairly calmly during the original fragmentary recital, and kept Marie-Claude from rushing to Erich.

"It sounds as if he's being taken care of. It'll be better for him if we don't see him in such humiliating circumstances."

Charlotte instead gave the woman some money and asked her to find a complete set of clothes for Erich.

"Don't try to wash the others. Just throw them away."

After the woman had left, Marie-Claude was extremely apologetic, seeming to think that Erich's undoing had been her fault.

"I should have thought to tell that dreadful person to leave Erich alone."

Charlotte was reassuring.

"You couldn't have known that they'd meet him. That was bad luck. For that matter, it was originally my idea to support the group."

"But it's so awful for Erich! Will he ever recover?"

"I think we should act as if this were a normal hazard of French politics. We could point out that he has something in common with Leon Blum."

"I don't know how much that will help. So far as I know, they didn't urinate on Blum. That's almost worse than being hit in the teeth."

Charlotte rejoined,

"If it comes up, we can say that they did all the same things, and worse, to Blum."

"For all we know, they may have. It wouldn't have been mentioned officially."

Charlotte smiled equably and replied,

"Yes. They always do leave some of the spice out of the news."

She then become more serious and said,

"I think Erich will be all right. In a way, he almost needed something to take a little starch out of him."

Marie-Claude nodded and paused a minute before replying,

"I hope it doesn't turn him into a leftist."

"We'll have to be very tactful and present things in just the right light."

When the party had again set out in their boat, Erich was attired in the blue outfit of a peasant. He had extremely little to say and moved rather stiffly. However, he seemed always to proceed in the direction indicated. Charlotte thought it better not to cancel their dinner plans, and Marie-Claude pointed out that there was a larger town on the way where they could get Erich something more suitable to wear.

An hour or so later, after Erich was fitted out in the manner of a provincial grandee, he was slightly more communicative. Unfortunately, he tended to repeat the same things over and over.

Marie-Claude and Charlotte both made a great point of impressing on Erich that the whole unfortunate thing had happened because he had been mistaken for a communist. As Marie-Claude said to him over brandy,

"Always insist that you're a conservative. Then nothing bad will ever happen to you."

Cafe des Europeans, June 30, 1936.

The outside tables of the cafe faced the ramp leading up to the Gare de Lyon. Even the ramp had an elaborate balustrade of white stone. The station itself, of the same stone, loomed high above its surroundings and culminated in a single clock tower. Through the upper parts of the high arched windows could be seen the chandeliers of a dining room which no one would ever have expected to find in a railway station.

Perhaps inspired by the sight of the travellers arriving for the Orient Express, Erich had been describing to Therese his encounter with the Cross of Fire. It had begun with his desperate, but ultimately successful, attempt to protect Charlotte and Marie-Claude from a fate worse than death. In his fight against great odds, he had seriously injured at least three motorcyclists, but had ultimately been pounded into insensibility.

Indeed, when he came to, he had found himself so covered with blood, both his own and that of the Cross of Fire, that he had been obliged to wade into the river and take off his clothes. Some admiring peasants, the women rather beautiful, had then come up and outfitted him as a peasant. So attired, he had gone to dinner with his grateful companions.

Therese had already heard a fairly accurate account. Indeed, it was that report, and the resulting hope that Erich might be detached from Marie-Claude's politics, that caused her to change her mind and see him again. With her eyes opened wide and her lips slightly parted, she avoided the mistake of saying too much or gushing. She was particularly careful in a case where she would have guessed that her companion was lying even if she hadn't already known the truth. He would ultimately feel badly if congratulated too fulsomely for deeds he hadn't performed. However, she did manage to look admiring, and even produced little gasps when appropriate. As a result, her very modest contributions to the conversation seemed to persuade Erich that he was a hero on a par with those who had defended Verdun with their bayonets.

The process of telling Erich that both Charlotte and Marie-Claude subsidized the Cross of Fire took some time, and veered back and forth from fact to insinuation to rumor. Finally, she attempted to put things straight.

"You shouldn't be too irritated about it. Exciting women, like your cousin and Marie-Claude Serrault, will never be content with the sorts of politicians we're producing these days. It's true that they talk endlessly and do almost nothing. I would have given up on them long ago, except that, now and then, I can prod them into a little action."

Erich replied, almost angrily,

"So Charlotte's idea of a man of action is someone who organizes the Cross of Fire?"

"Well, of course, Colonel de la Roque is quite a handsome man."

Therese went on apologizing for Charlotte and Marie-Claude. If Erich had really fought the motorcyclists as he now said, he might be feeling sufficiently good about the whole episode to forgive such little mistakes as supporting the Cross of Fire. But, under the existing circumstances, Therese knew that she could safely defend Charlotte and Marie-Claude without bending his opinion in their favor. The effect was only to make her sound tolerant toward them. It was in that atmosphere that she finally pointed out,

"Of course, there are things that could be done to oppose the Cross of Fire."

Erich looked interested and asked,

"You mean, hire another group to beat them up?"

"That's a possibility. It would also be useful if we could get your cousin Charlotte to stop supporting them."

"As far as politics go, I have no idea what she's getting up to these days."

"As far as I can make out, she's attracted to the fashionable people, like Marie-Claude Serrault, who are hopelessly ensnared in fascistic anti-communism. They're really catholic royalists at heart."

"I'll see what I can find out."

"The more you can tell me about her, the more things I can do to bring her back to sanity."

Therese then changed the subject. Erich was certainly intelligent enough to know that he should affect rightist views in front of Charlotte in order to retain her confidence.

Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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